The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It was my first trip without my husband or kids. I couldn’t stop crying.

A quiet cup of espresso in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)

I hadn’t packed the emergency tissues into my little travel bag, and now my runny nose and runny mascara were starting to blend. Things in seat 23F were a complete mess.

But this is what I wanted. What was wrong with me?

During those long, tough days when my boys were babies and everyone was sick; those hockey practices when I stole sleep in the crumb-filled minivan; when my only getaway was chaperoning 28 fifth-graders on a historical-reenactment camping trip in colonial garb, and it rained all night and I woke up with a salamander in my sleep sack and wet leaves in my hair, I dreamed of getting away.

Kids journey back to colonial era. Members of Congress should, too.

Just me, a mom trying to have time alone, an exhale longer than those stolen moments in the locked bathroom.

“Come meet us in Italy!” my friend had said.

I was talking to her when she invited me to join a leg of the European grand tour she was doing for her daughter’s gap year. Their days in Rome were right after my son’s big school play and before Halloween, when we always host trick-or-treaters.

The husband had just gone solo on a Labor Day weekend dude-fest with his high school pals on the Texas ranch one of them bought. It was my turn, right?

I looked at airfares, and found one that was dirt cheap (two layovers and “no frills”). Sold.

And that’s how I traveled for pleasure, alone, for the first time since my kids were born. Actually, for the first time since the husband and I took our first trip together out of college.

“Oh no. Are you okay?” asked the woman next to me, when she tried to start a casual conversation about the Portuguese airline we were flying and was met with my crying face.

“I’m sorry. It’s just (sniff, glurg) the first time I’m traveling without my kids,” I explained.

Ginny reached for her travel bag and pulled out a tissue pack covered in princesses.

“How old are your kids?” she asked, as she pulled out one tissue, then three.

And I felt pretty pathetic when I told her they are 18 and 15.

“Ha!” Ginny said. “I raised four. Four. And I just saw my grandbaby. Do you want to see pictures of her?”

And Ginny whipped out her phone to show me the bald, doughy little baby doll she visited.

“And now we’re going to Porto!” she said. “You have to let them go. You’re a good mom, I can see that. It’s okay to do something for yourself.”

The moment my son and husband dropped me at Dulles that October afternoon, the rush I usually get as those airport doors whoosh open was gone. I had a sickening feeling of regret. I texted my husband:

“I made a mistake,” I wrote.

“This feels wrong.”

“What’s the point?”

I punched the ticket on my very own, mommy guilt trip.

Because parents today are bombarded with messages, advice and scolding on how we’re supposed to raise those children, to keep them away from screens and cram them with information and growth. Every moment should be a learning experience. Every outing should be educational.

For parents who work outside the home? There’s the perpetual guilt cloud hanging over every hour you’re at work. And it’s no easier for the parents who left a career to stay home.

Self-care? Plenty of time for that when they move out.

Why so many Gen-X women take a pass on parenthood

And who can blame us? Especially Gen Xers — an entire generation of latchkey kids who ran wild when no aftercare programs existed, fueled on afternoon Fruit Loops and Oreos, parented by Isis and Shaggy — are going to swing as hard away from our parents’ absentee, Sanka-and-cigarette parenting as we can.

And that’s why I was crying on the airplane, convinced I was a glass of Riunite away from being a social services neglect case.

“I missed the appointment,” the text from my son said, as soon as my phone connected to the airport WiFi on my Lisbon layover.

And I got to work tapping away at my phone, setting up another coronavirus booster appointment for my college freshman.

Is a GPS tracker too much at college drop-off?

“I guess I’m not going to stop parenting after all,” I laughingly said to Ginny as we passed in the serpentine passport control line and I told her what happened.

“He’ll figure it out,” she said, unamused. “Let him figure it out.”

Okay.

I made it through passport control. It was dawn. I had five hours in Lisbon on my layover. My husband would be arguing to stay in the airport. My kids would be a tired and cranky mess. I jumped into a taxi to Belém Tower just in time to see the 16th-century limestone edifice pinken in the sunrise and sent my son the photo.

“I hate hate hate being here without you guys,” I texted him, still heartsick.

“I wish I was there with you,” he texted back. “But I’m not dead I’m just in college so next time!”

Yup. And he reminded me that I’m not dead, either.

For the next five days, I left my convent of motherhood and scootered around Rome, drank wine on a rooftop with my friend, and we poked around in grocery stores and flea markets — all the things the men in my family hate doing. I took all the time in the world at the Pietà. I marveled at a horse shaped out of cheese. I was a little lonely, sometimes, but not always.

And I bought a tissue pack for my purse, because Ginny reminded me that motherhood — no matter who you’re mothering — never ends.

And my son? He got his vaccine. He figured it out.

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